How to Ensure Your Business Judgments Are Fair

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When we interpret the behavior of others, we tend to attribute it to their character or competence, rather than considering the impact of situational factors.

By Francesca Gino

Managers and business leaders regularly evaluate organizational members, as well as the products and services their company offers. These evaluations are often biased: They do not account for the role that the context plays.

As an example, consider the last time one of your colleagues arrived late at an office meeting. You may have interpreted this behavior as a sign that your colleague is not a reliable or considerate person.

Now consider the last time you were the one who was late for a meeting. You may have had a legitimate excuse, such as getting stuck in traffic on the way to the office. This highlights how a factor outside your control could explain your behavior. In this case, you did not conclude that you were inconsiderate or unreliable.

When we interpret the behavior of others, we tend to attribute it to their character or competence, rather than considering the impact that situational factors may have. (We tend to do the opposite when we evaluate our own actions, as the earlier example highlights.) Too often, we give little thought to whether the person whose behavior we are trying to make sense of was in a situation that influenced what he or she did.

This common tendency, which psychologists call “correspondence bias,” influences not only how we interpret the behavior of others, but also how we evaluate them. Thus, decisions as important as hiring and promoting may be biased in favor of people who are less deserving than others.

In research I conducted in collaboration with Don Moore, Sam Swift and Zachariah Sharek, we asked admissions officers of a top MBA program to evaluate applicants who were requesting admission to the program. We gave them information about applicants’ performance (their grade point average), as well as the average GPA of the particular college each had attended.

When deciding whom to admit, the admissions officers overweighted applicants’ nominal GPAs and underweighted the effect of the grading norms at the schools the applicants attended. Despite their expertise in making admission decisions, the officers did not take into account the ease with which applicants had earned their grades.

In general, when making these types of important evaluations, we commonly fail to adjust for the difficulty of achieving high levels of performance.

Similarly, because of this type of bias, managers may be more likely to promote a salesperson who is performing at high levels in a region with a lot of demand rather than another who is performing at lower levels in a troubled region. And a senior IT leader may have more confidence in a new software engineer who seems to efficiently write code in an easy-to-learn programming language rather than one who is less efficient in a more complex language.

Given the pervasiveness of the correspondence bias in our decisions, how can we overcome it? We can do so by regularly applying a principle I call “consider the source.” There is a lot of value in carefully considering the information that enters our decision-making processes and that may bias how we evaluate our own actions and those of others.

When making inferences about others, this principle leads us to ask important questions, such as whether it is possible that situational factors are affecting the behavior or performance of the person we are evaluating, and what such factors may be. The gut feeling you have about a person’s competence or skills may simply be an outcome of the correspondence bias. Being aware of this tendency and using the consider-the-source principle will likely make you a fairer and more accurate judge of others.

It is certainly possible—and quite likely—that there are incompetent or unreliable individuals in your organization. But given how easy it is for us to jump to inaccurate conclusions when interpreting others’ actions or evaluating them, we would benefit from first considering possible explanations for their behavior. The staff members or co-workers who deserve negative evaluations will give you many opportunities to confirm your suspicions.

Also remember that others are affected by the same tendencies that have an impact on you. So avoid putting yourself in situations that could cause others to make negative inferences about your general competence or character.

For instance, the next time you arrive late at the office or do not deliver on your promises in time, make sure you take the time to explain what caused those delays.

Francesca Gino is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the author ofSidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan.”

This article was originally published on 2013-04-03
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